By Larry Mogelonsky, MBA, P. Eng. (www.hotelmogel.com)
Travel behavior in the summer of COVID-19 has been erratic and still has a long way to go until it returns to pre-pandemic levels. However, the search data during this recovery period can offer strong clues as to what customers will want from their hotel experiences in the next normal so that operators can adjust their businesses accordingly.
Notably, much has already been said about the recent Google Trends numbers which show that search share in many major Western countries for Airbnb and Booking have both trended disproportionately upward relative to Expedia, Hilton and Marriott since their collective nadirs in March 2020. In fact, as of July 2020, Airbnb has reached a 12-month high in search share.
Why is this happening? What motivations underscore this post-pandemic trend? This does not have a one-size-fits-all answer, but instead we can look at several different probably explanations as well as some travel predictions implied therein.
1. Anonymity is favored over cleanliness.
While the big chains have diligently responded to the pandemic by doubling down on sanitization and their messaging surrounding this, perhaps cleanliness isn’t that important to guests as hoteliers are led to believe. Instead, in a post-Covid world where physical human interactions have been vilified, travelers may prefer the perceived contactless nature of home sharing platforms – no front desk or lobby crowds, just access to the reserved accommodation with all communications handled by a messaging app.
With so many hotel amenities like the spa and the restaurant still shuttered or greatly hindered in their capacities for regular business, there’s even less reason to stay at a traditional property. A takeaway from this should be to consider shifting your hotel’s messaging and operations to favor this anonymity should guests desire it.
2. A sense of local rediscovery.
The lockdown and cessation of international airfare has forced practically every traveler to rethink where they will journey next. In most cases this has meant researching local and drive-to destinations which would previously have been passed over in lieu of exotic lands accessibly via long haul flights. And what better way to find accommodations in an unfamiliar locale then by browsing the top two reservations websites that are all but guaranteed to have some availability in that region?
To this end, the OTAs and meta-search platforms should be viewed as traditional hotels’ best friends during our current recovery as they will maximize visibility amongst new customers and can be nimbly set up with effective geotargeted advertisement campaigns.
3. Revenge travel is only the first stage of recovery.
The people searching and booking rooms amidst the ever-looming threat of a second wave and local outbreaks all over the world are likely not representative of the total population. The pandemic has divided us all according to our individual boldness, with many chomping at the bit to end the quarantine as quickly as possible while an equal or larger proportion are still skittishly waiting on the sidelines for more reassurances of safety from governmental authorities or for the distribution of a vaccine.
In what has been coined as ‘revenge travel’, it’s likely this former group of more brash individuals who are fueling the search surge observed for Airbnb and Booking as they just want to travel again and not be reminded of all the new safety regulations they must now abide by should they opt for a highly trafficked hotel. Given this inference, brands can highlight the quick and easy nature of checking in and getting around their properties to better appeal to people of this mindset. Moreover, the messaging surrounding cleanliness should not be abandoned as the second, more apprehensive cohort of travelers, which is also more likely to include corporate and group guests, has yet to fully resume their booking habits and they definitely appreciate all the new sanitization features put in place.
4. Airbnb is now the official king of hospitality.
This sharing economy platform had the most total rooms prior to the pandemic and its rapid ascent following the lifting of travel restrictions now underscores its public perception as the most trusted source for accommodations. In years past, part of the rallying cry for ‘leveling the playing field’ was that lodging providers on Airbnb never paid their fair share of taxes for operating a commercial business and thus were able to offer lower nightly rates relative to traditional properties for similar rooms.
Without this leveling in place, the effect we are currently seeing is that Airbnb and other home sharing platforms are seen by many customers as having better overall value per dollar than hotels, and thus it makes sense in a depressed economy that the ‘cheaper’ booking websites would recover first. Hotels can learn from this by developing meaningful value-added promotions that are differentiated from the bargain prices offered by the likes of Airbnb and Booking. Furthermore, this highlights the need for strong loyalty incentives and developing an internal, data-rich CRM so that you can augment return visits booked direct.